Some time around 1190 BC –almost certainly not
in 1177–the city of Ugarit in Syria was destroyed. Nothing special about that, cities get destroyed all the time. To me, the extraordinary thing about the destruction of Ugarit is how much we know about it. And this, I think, is the real source of our ongoing fascination with the series of events called the Bronze Age Collapse. The number of surviving contemporary texts that make some kind of reference to the troubled events of this era is downright astonishing. There is also a vast trove of archaeological and climate data and tantalizing hints in the two most famous ancient texts, the Iliad and the Old Testament. We have, therefore, a ton of data to approach an interesting problem: what happened to the Bronze Age civilizations of the area between Greece and Babylon?
Because something did happen, as all the solid dots representing destroyed cities on the map above show. One of them is Hattusa, the capital of the Hittite Empire, which collapsed and survived only as a small remnant in a single province. Something pretty catastrophic also happened in Greece, where all of the Mycenaean citadels suffered heavy damage and several were completely abandoned.
Ugarit, Citadel Entrance
To get back to Ugarit. Almost every popular account of the City's fall mentions a clay tablet found in the ruins of the palace, a copy of a letter that the last king of the city, Ammurapi, wrote to the King of Alashiya that reads something like this:
My father, behold, the enemy's ships came (here); my cities(?) were burned, and they did evil things in my country. Does not my father know that all my troops and chariots(?) are in the Land of Hatti, and all my ships are in the Land of Lukka? ... Thus, the country is abandoned to itself. May my father know it: the seven ships of the enemy that came here inflicted much damage upon us.
But I just learned, from Eric Kline's 1177 B.C.: The Year Civilization Collapsed (2014) that this is just one of several hundred surviving letters sent to or by Ugarit's kings, ministers, scribes, and leading merchants in the last century of the city's existence. Among them are two responses to King Ammurapi's pleas for help. One comes from the King of Alashiya, which most scholars place in Cyprus:
As for the matter concerning those enemies: (it was) the people from your country (and) your own ships (who) did this! And (it was) the people from your country (who) committed these transgression(s)...I am writing to inform you and protect you. Be aware!
So perhaps this was more of a rebellion than an invasion. And whoever was making the trouble, the Hittite governor of Carchemish was not impressed:
You write to say that ships of the enemy have been sighted. You should reinforce your walls, bring your soldiers and chariots into the city, and stand firm.
I mean, this happened 3200 years ago, and we can trace out, letter by letter, the alarms raised by the people in threatened cities and the unhelpful responses that came from elsewhere.
Note that one of the other cities shown on that map is Troy, about which there are three theories:
- The powerful state of Ahhiyawa, which many equate to Homer's Achaeans, attacked and destroyed Troy as part of its long-running struggle with the Hittites for power in western Anatolia, but this was its last act as a major power before it sank in oblivion, and perhaps this war weakened it and helped cause its fall, as Homer implies.
- Actually Troy was destroyed by the same people or forces that destroyed Mycenae, and Homer was confused about this;
- Homer was just a blind old fantasist, so please shut up about his stupid 10-year-war and his wooden horse and stop asking archaeologists to find the remains of his imaginings in the ground. While you're at it, stop looking for Atlantis.
Meanwhile the Old Testament tells us that the Israelites conquered their lands west of the Dead Sea at about this time, which was probably only possible because Egypt had retreated from the area after various defeats that weakened it, leaving a power vacuum. The first mention of Israel or Judah outside the Bible is an Egyptian inscription we date to 1207 BC.
But the most extensive records of the collapse period come from Egypt. There we have hundreds of lines of inscriptions, a trove of clay tablets, and even a surviving piece of papyrus that contains a report from a royal scribe about events in Canaan. Around 1200 BC the Egyptians were troubled by invasions on all fronts: Nubians from the South, Libyans from the West, and from the north a coalition of tribes that archaeologists call the Sea Peoples but that Egyptians called Denyen, Peleset, Shekelesh, Sherden, Teresh, Tjekker, Weshesh, and sometimes other equally outlandish names. According to a narrative carved in the tomb of Ramses III, these people had ravaged the whole eastern Mediterranean seaboard. None could stand against them until they tried to invade Egypt, at which point Ramses defeated them in a great sea and land battle at one of the Nile's mouths. Some of them were settled around Egyptian border fortresses and assigned the task of defending the kingdom against others much like them.
If you ever really need a rabbit hole to dive down, you might try the 170-year-old debate among archaeologists and linguists over who the Sea Peoples were and whether we can equate the names the Egyptians gave them with known places or peoples. (E.g., Peleset=Philistines, Sherden=Sardinia) I tried this once and ended up with a headache and a strong inclination never to believe ever anything again about the ethnic names in Egyptian inscriptions.
Eric Kline, I was pleased to note, is equally skeptical about identifying the Sea Peoples with particular places or ethnicities, although he nods toward accepting the Peleset as the Philistines. The Philistines are actually well attested archaeologically. Around 1170 BC the five cities associated with them in the Bible were occupied by new people with different pottery, and an Egyptian border post at one of those sites was flattened and a new building erected on top of it. Some people think Philistine pottery (above) looks like Mycenaean pottery, but it certainly isn't exactly like Mycenaean pottery, and since Mycenaean pottery had been widely traded around the eastern Mediterranean for centuries, anybody might have copied it. Still, they might have some connection to Greece, or perhaps Cyprus. But this is pretty much the only archaeological evidence we have for migrations in this period, and the Philistines are hardly one of history's most important actors.
So what was the Bronze Age collapse? One answer, which you don't see much in print but which is what some archaeologists I know actually believe, is that it wasn't much at all. The Hittite Empire fell, there was some kind of war in Greece, various tribes moved by land and sea into the power vacuum left when Egypt withdrew from Canaan, a bunch of cities were destroyed by earthquakes. Nothing to get excited about, and then the whole region was conquered by the Assyrians anyway.
Those who do think something important happened point to the dominant role played by royal palaces in the societies and economies of the Middle and Late Bronze Age. Think about Knossos on Crete, which was more like a suburb attached to a palace than our idea of a city. The palace at Mycenae (above) takes up about half the space within the walls. Things were not that extreme in Syria or the Hittite lands, but the palaces were still huge structures and their records show that they carried out much of the long-distance trading. They also raised large armies, marched them hundreds of miles and fought big battles, after which their professional diplomats arranged treaties that were often sealed by royal marriages.
After the collapse, the argument goes, the old palace states were replaced by new kinds of states and societies that were less dominated by royal bureaucracies. Like the aristocratic city states of Archaic Greece and Phoenicia, often ruled by councils rather than kings. Of course that did not happen in either of the two most important states in the region, Assyria and Egypt, and 700 years later Persian Sardis looks very much like one of those palace cities. But anyway it did happen in some places, so maybe it was an important development for a while. One consequence of the decline of the palaces is that outside Egypt and Assyria we have many fewer written records. That, I think, may be the real reason many people feel there must have been some kind of collapse: we had tablets and inventories and royal letters, and then we don't.
What caused all of this? I have written here before about two of the big theories, climate change
and popular revolt
. Evidence is accumulating that the 12th century BC was a particularly dry period, and we (again) have lots of written evidence of grain shortages and outright famine. I am intrigued by the popular revolt theory. If the people attacking the King of Ugarit were his own sailors, that suggests a different model of how cities came to be destroyed. In China, periods of turmoil often saw the emergence of huge bandit armies that sacked cities and ravaged whole provinces, their ranks drawn from the unemployed, the dissatisfied, and the hungry. Could something like that have happened in Syria and Canaan? Could the Philistines and the rest of those mysterious raiders have been ordinary folks from Greece, Crete, Cyprus, or even Italy who were driven by famine to go rogue? And their chief targets would of course have been the hated palaces, where kings hoarded their tax-extracted wealth and enjoyed their vast harems, and the professional diplomats kept the frequent wars in which lots of commoners died from ever upsetting the balance of power.
(One thing that you should completely ignore in thinking about this problem is chariots. Every time I try to watch a video about this period they start going on about chariots, about how they were superweapons that made the armies with lots of them invincible, and because they were so expensive this drove the rise of new superpowers like Assyria, and so on, blah blah blah. STOP. Chariots were not especially effective weapons, and their main role was probably to show off the wealth of people who could afford to ride to battle in them. I would be willing to bet a large sum of money that never in history did a force of chariots defeat a force of disciplined, well-armed infantry. Sometimes you may read that people used chariots until they mastered fighting from horseback, which you will sometimes read was introduced by the Assyrians, but horse-riding is older
than chariots. All of these people need to read Soldiers and Ghosts
Eric Kline goes for a third theory, drawing on all the recent work on the collapse of complex systems
. He actually spends more than half his little book laying out all the connections among the states of the Near East: the trade, the royal letters, the marriages. To him the trading relations and so on among the Late Bronze Age palace states were an exquisitely complex system, and when the system was stressed too hard by a combination of drought and discontent, with perhaps a few other events thrown in like the sack of Troy and a major Hittite defeat by Assyria in 1237 BC, it fell apart. Something like that may have happened in Greece and western Anatolia, where populations fell and civilization took a significant step backward, but I don't see it for Assyria, Canaan, or Egypt. Assyria came roaring back after a pause of only a few decades, rising to new heights of power. Phoenicia was already creating its great trading empire by 1100 BC, and Solomon was hanging out with the Queen of Sheba.
I don't really recommend 1177 BC as a book about the Bronze Age collapse. But as a book about the archaeology and history of that era, it is very interesting, full of wonderful details from the vast array of texts and archaeological data that we have from a fascinating period.
Sometimes you may read that people used chariots until they mastered fighting from horseback, which you will sometimes read was introduced by the Assyrians, but horse-riding is older than chariots. All of these people need to read Soldiers and Ghosts.)
My understanding has been that yes, horse riding is older than chariot usage... but that riding horses is not the same thing as fighting from them, and that horses of the era were still small, and therefor not suited to being ridden by heavy cavalrymen equipped with weighty bronze armor, large shields, large bows, etc.
While I do feel chariots probably get somewhat more credit than they really deserve, it does seem clear that they were useful and filled a niche role. Sure, you could employ your horses as light cavalry, with riders in little to no armor and wielding spears or similar weapons, but that more or less restricts their usefulness to running down routing enemies. Great for "winning more" after a fight, not so great for helping ensure that you win a close battle.
What a chariot instead allowed was a skirmishing force that was faster and more mobile than anything else on the battlefield (save horse-riding light cavalry). It combined the ranged punch of archers with the speed and endurance of horses, in a way that simply wasn't possible otherwise at that time.
Horse archery isn't terribly feasible without specialized bows which are smaller for use on horseback - see the various recurve bows of every major horse archery tradition. There are exceptions (for example, the samurai of Japan notably used the utterly massive yumi longbow from horseback), but in general if you wanted a force of horse archers (who actually fought from horseback) rather than simply a force of mounted archer (who rode horses for transportation, but dismounted before fighting), you needed large horses and small bows (usually recurve or composite or both), and ideally stirrups as well for even better stability, control, and accuracy.
Don't have those things, but still want mobile archers who fight while moving? Put your archers in a chariot, which can be pulled even by small horses, and which have plenty of room to accommodate even large bows. As a bonus, your archer doesn't need to also be trained in managing horses - you have a driver expressly for that purpose, who likewise doesn't need to be a trained archer.
And this division of labor introduces certain other logistical benefits - need to move a bunch of troops in a hurry? Turns out, any soldier can jump into a chariot and get dropped off somewhere else to continue fighting far faster than they could travel on foot. Your infantry are out of position and can't engage the enemy? Send in your chariots, have them drop off their archers somewhere they can safely fire from, then have them pick up your stranded infantry to ferry them somewhere more useful. If you have 500 chariots, you can certainly relocate 500 infantry at a time, and perhaps even double or triple that in a pinch if the chariots are sizeable / sturdy enough to temporarily overload with extra passengers.
Chariots were a way to respond quickly to weaknesses or even gaps in the enemy lines, and punish your opponents for making mistakes. Yes, they struggled against disciplined, well-armed infantry - but so did literally everything else. And the entire point of a skirmishing force is to harry and harass enemies in order to break their discipline, and blunt their arms by getting them to waste spears and ammunition, damaging or destroying their shields via missiles to inhibit shield walls, and create casualties which require tending to and disrupt the ability to maintain formations.
I would be willing to bet a large sum of money that never in history did a force of chariots defeat a force of disciplined, well-armed infantry.
Perhaps, perhaps not, but how often in history did a force of purely cavalry defeat a force of disciplined, well-armed infantry?
Infantry are always king. That's largely true even today, with aircraft and armor and artillery. You can do a hell of a lot of damage with those specialized forces, but they need a core of infantry to support and to be supported by in order to be truly effective. You can't just build an army out of nothing but tanks and call it a day. You will ultimately lose without a large core of infantry.
You might as well say that "I would be willing to bet a large sum of money that never in history did a force of archers defeat a force of disciplined, well-armed infantry. It entirely misses the point.
"Combined arms" is an ancient concept, and it exists for a reason. Chariots, like archers and all the others, didn't typically win battle by themselves - instead, they simply made the enemy forces have to defend themselves in a way that made them more vulnerable to the infantry they were also fighting simultaneously. These things are force multipliers, rather than significant forces unto themselves.
I would be willing to bet that disciplined, well-armed troops of any sort are hard to beat in a pitched battle. But in a whole campaign, what's decisive will vary from moment to moment; sometimes it will be battle performance (as John is describing here), but sometimes it will be mobility, sometimes the depth of motive, sometimes the sheer size of one's territory or population, and very often, the depth of one's pockets--or even better, the depth of one's credit. Pure quality of battle performance is a weak reed on which to base power--e.g., early modern Sweden.
@G-if you think I am missing the point, go on YouTube and search for Bronze Age Collapse or Chariot Warfare and tell me those guys don't think chariots were like armed helicopters or something. They are bonkers. You can watch a whole whole video about late Bronze Age states which makes their power entirely about chariots, as if this were 1910 and chariots were Dreadnoughts-class battleships.
I said up front, I think they get overrated.
But that has nothing to do with how absurd it is to then posit "I would be willing to bet a large sum of money that never in history did a force of chariots defeat a force of disciplined, well-armed infantry." That's a ridiculous sort of metric to apply, even if you do think chariot are overrated - which I do.
The "attack helicopter" thing actually works pretty well as a comparative point of value - you don't send in attack helicopters by themselves to take out a force of disciplined, well-armed infantry, because they will get shot down. Helicopters are actually fairly fragile, and can be dropped out of the sky with everything from the classic RPG to simple small arms fire in high enough volume or accuracy. The use of attack helicopters is to fly in quickly, harass the enemy, then fly back out to safety before they get taken down - which is pretty much the exact same usage of a chariot. If chariots stuck around, they'd be destroyed.
I agree that some of the people out there talking about chariots definitely overplay their importance, but I know that others (see historian Mike Loades, for example) are reputable experts who are simply trying to find comparisons which help modern audiences understand the comparative role and value of chariots, without trying to argue they were the end all and be all of bronze age warfare.
"Men occasionally rode horseback as early as the 14th century BC."
"The difficulty of remaining firmly on a horse's back without saddle or stirrups was, however, very great; and especially so if a man tried to use his hands to pull a bow at the same time -- or wield some other kind of weapon. For centuries horseback riding remained unimportant in military engagements, though perhaps specially trained messengers used their horses fleetness to deliver information to army commanders."
-- William H. McNeill, The Pursuit of Power
-- paperback edition, page 14, footnote
So that's what he has to say about horses and war. I have no idea why saddles and stirrups wouldn't be available.
As to chariots, I'm not sure how valuable they were, either, but they were not worthless on flat ground. They were, though, I believe, expensive to make and maintain at this time. I'm sure well trained armies knew of several strategies to nullify the advantages of chariots, not the least of which would be to pick rocky and hilly terrain to fight on if their opponent was known for chariot fighting.
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